by Teralynn Nordgren
I’ve come across this idea – that chastity is about controlling women – a few times in the past year. The first was last summer when ESPN’s Bomani Jones said that chastity was stupid on the popular TV channel, and then on Twitter added, among other things, this statement: “I believe the underlying premise is flawed and about controlling women as much as anything else.” Shortly afterward, there was an article by Micheal Sonmore, who says he is a feminist, and that as such, he agreed to open up his marriage at his wife’s request so that she could explore her sexuality. He explains that any expectation of fidelity came from a chauvinist desire for control and would disregard his wife’s individuality. Most recently, I came across this idea as I read through the post titled “Training Your Child to be a Gender and Sexual Rights Activist” on the UFI website. It was within the bullet points from the Comprehensive Sex Education Curriculum. In particular there was this bullet point, with it’s heavy focus on females and, well, zero focus on males: “Girls may be discouraged or even punished for being sexually active. In most settings, girls receive contradictory messages about sex. Many are taught that they should not be sexually active prior to marriage.”
I raised my eyebrows when I first heard this concept. “Really? About controlling women?” I thought. I couldn’t understand. My understanding of chastity, in it’s most basic sense, is that it is a lifestyle for both men and women in which they are expected to be abstinent before marriage and faithful to each other after marriage. In other words: no extra-marital sex. In my religion, and in my home growing up, this lifestyle was taught to both the boys and the girls. So if chastity applies the same to men as women, why this focus on women and feminism?
Moreover, I thought about where chastity began. It’s a traditional lifestyle embraced by many societies around the world – Christians, Jews, and Hindus, to name a few. Chastity began long before contraceptives, abortion, and other practices that make ethics today more confusing. It began in a time when it would actually have benefitted women more directly than men. Think about it. If a woman were to have sex out of wedlock and conceive, without societal intervention she would be left to bear the responsibilities of pregnancy, childbirth, and childrearing on her own, while the father could wander off freely (and he probably wouldn’t have even contracted an STD). Chastity is a lifestyle that protects women and children from this natural injustice.
Having heard this concept repeated more than once within so short a time, I thought the idea must be coming from somewhere. So I carefully searched the phrase “chastity about controlling women” on Google. The results surprised me. The entire first page is a list of websites about chastity belts for men. Honestly I didn’t read too far into it because it wasn’t what I was looking for, but if you glance through the results page it’s easy to get the jist of what is being promoted: women controlling when their male partners can have sex. According to some of the phrases on the results page, some men find this arrangement a turn-on. Interesting. Not at all what I expected, but maybe I misinterpreted Bomani Jones’ meaning. Maybe he meant chastity is about women who are controlling.
That would actually fit Mr. Jones’ other statements on Twitter about chastity. It doesn’t fit Micheal Sonmore’s interpretation though, nor does it reflect the contents of that Comprehensive Sex Education Curriculum.
I am aware that at different places and times – even in some parts of the world today – certain cultures have applied the idea of chastity unequally between men and women. In the book A History of Marriage, by Elizabeth Abbott, for example, the author explains that in 19th century western culture, “first-time brides were expected to be virgins, though first-time husbands did not need to be.” Women have all-too-often suffered greater shame and punishment for being unchaste than men have, which is really unfortunate and unfair. And while I couldn’t find the connection in writing anywhere, I think double-standards like this may be the reason some think of chastity as a way to control women and not men.
It’s sad to me that these are the views so many have of chastity. Yes, chastity has been applied and enforced in horrible ways at different times and places, but that does not mean that chastity itself is a horrible thing. It’s a lot like a kitchen knife. The purpose of the kitchen knife is to help individuals and families prepare food. It is particularly useful when preparing healthy foods like fresh vegetables. Unfortunately, some people have chosen to use kitchen knives to cause intense harm or even to murder others. That is not why kitchen knives were made, and although no one can deny that when they are used to harm others, the results are devastating, it would be unreasonable to say kitchen knives are terrible, no-good things altogether and that we should do away with all of them.
Maybe I was just lucky, but I learned about chastity in a pretty positive way. I won’t write the name of my religion here because I am not a spokeswoman for them, but I will say that it is one of the most common Christian religions in the United States. I had several lessons on chastity in church as I grew up, some with the boys and girls together in the same room. It wasn’t taught as a double-standard, nor as a way for one sex to control the other. Our leaders encouraged both sexes to be chaste. They also taught us why chastity is good and how to remain chaste (because yes, it takes some planning and self-discipline).
And what if someone in my religion had sex before marriage? Our leaders talked mostly about the well-known natural consequences of extra-marital sex – such as complicated relationships and the possibility of bringing children into the world before we were ready to be parents. There are a few punishments that could come from the religious organization, but they are not cruel. The common punishment is that those who were unchaste aren’t allowed to participate in ordinances for a certain period of time. The most severe punishment is that an individual can be taken off the records of the church (basically un-baptized). They would never be barred from attending church services or classes simply because they sinned, though. (Considering we all sin, that would be hypocritical, wouldn’t it?) Also, there is a way for those who are taken off the records of the church to be re-baptized and regain full-fellowship – meaning they can again participate in ordinances etc.
Unlike what is sometimes shown in the media, no one takes anyone’s babies away, and no one forces anyone to get married. If a baby is involved, either placing the baby for adoption or getting married (if the couple feels it is right for them) is encouraged, but a birth mother is allowed to keep her baby without any further consequences from the religion. The policy is to let the birth parents decide what family arrangement would be best. I have known several people who have gone through the processes I have described in my religion, and I have every respect for both the policies that are in place and the people to whom they have been applied.
I practiced chastity through my teenage years and my early twenties. When I married my husband in my mid-twenties, we were both virgin. My belief in other aspects of my religion have wavered, but I have never regretted only having sex with one man, or – for that matter – waiting until my mid-twenties to become sexually active. I have considered what it would be like to live a different lifestyle, but I feel that chastity has given me so much peace of mind that whatever thrills might come from other choices aren’t worth it. Chastity is not about controlling women – nor is it about controlling men. Chastity is about self-control, and I am grateful to have been taught this way.